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Torch Brothers Beware! Why Grilling May Not Be Great for the “Boys”

Beth Heller, MS

At our house we’ve even got a name for the team of carnivorous males that gather around the grill with cold beers and tongs while the meat cooks – the Torch Brothers.  The tie that binds these brothers is not a tie of blood, but rather one of sizzling fat and grill tools.   Apart from the “testosterone fumes” that drift in from the patio, I’ve always assumed these male bonding moments are harmless…and someone besides me is doing the cooking.  How could this be a bad thing?

This week, headlines have been screaming about the extinction of the human male due to declining sperm quality.  The issue is soon to be epidemic, sources say, due to environmental concerns, including the consumption of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemicals considered to be “genotoxic,” or highly damaging to our genetic material.  Studies have shown that higher levels of PAHs in the urine are associated with poor sperm quality and cancer in men.

Most PAHs arise from man-made sources – auto exhaust, chemical sludge, industrial plants, wood-burning stoves, oil contamination of surface water and smoke (forest fire, waste incineration and cigarettes) – that make their way into food chain through bio-accumulation.  Soil and crops grown near motorways have higher concentrations of PAHs.  And, because PAHs are fat-soluble they are stored in the fat tissue of plants and animals.  Grazing animals like poultry and cattle are particularly susceptible to PAHs since they consume both vegetation and particulate matter from the soil.   PAH-contaminated soil also washes into rivers and oceans, where filtering animals such as mussels and oysters, become contaminated.  Unfortunately there’s another common way to create PAHs – and that’s on the barbie.   Meat, including fish and poultry, but especially red meat, contains amino acids, sugars and a protein called creatinine that combine to form PAHs when they are heated to a very high temperature.  Grilling is one of the few cooking techniques that create the kind of heat necessary for the formation of PAHs.

These are grim facts indeed, but perhaps the risk is overstated.   A world without men (and a summer without burgers) is a bleak world indeed.   Is it possible to enjoy a cookout without endangering the health of our hubbies and future male children?  As always, the key is moderation and intelligence (arguably not qualities found in high concentration in the Torch Brethren).   So here is some important info to pass along to the boys out back:

  1. Use moderation.  Grilling once a week (with good grill techniques) is fine but not every night.
  2. Choose lean meats and trim excess fat from meat before it hits the grill.
  3. Avoid “flame-ups.”  When fat drips onto hot coals, PAHs are formed and the resulting vapor is re-absorbed by the meat like a toxic steam bath.
  4. Discard charred meats.  Where you see black and burnt, PAHs have been released and re-absorbed.  I repeat, charred is a bad thing.
  5. Serve fresh, raw vegetables on the side of your grilled meal.  The antioxidants in fresh vegetables combat DNA damage from PAHs.
  6. Top your burger with onions.  At least one study in mice show that onions (especially red onions) contain a compound called quercetin that may protect sperm damage by PAHs.  So add the onions…just don’t grill them.
  7. Avoid grilling cured meats that contain nitrates and liquid smoke products.
  8. Limit PAH consumption from other sources:  don’t smoke, wash the waxy surface of vegetables very thoroughly, if you burn wood in your fireplace make sure you’ve got good ventilation.

These simple measures can ensure sperm-friendly cookouts for your favorite men this summer.  Go and enjoy!  Be present, be positive…be PAH-free!  Beth